What’s in your pet’s food?

By September 25, 2012 Nutrition

Nutrition can be a tricky subject for pet owners.  We all want to feed our pet the best thing for them, but do we actually know what is best?  There are many marketing schemes or trends for pet foods these days, which can make it hard to determine what is best for your pet.  As a veterinary technician, I have the diet discussion a lot with clients.  I find most people are trying to read their pet’s food label to decide if that diet is good or not.  As I tell our clients, reading the label is only part of the process you should do when deciding on pet foods.  

Currently, AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is responsible for setting the minimum nutritional standards for pet food (AAFCO sets the standards for the U.S., and Pet Food Association of Canada -PFAC upholds these guideline in Canada).   Unfortunately, regulations for pet foods are not too specific & the guidelines allow room for loop holes for companies to put slogans or marketing strategies on their bags without reprimand.

Below are some categories you may find on pet food label.  I’ve broken down the meaning of these items, to help you better understand what is actually in your pet’s food.   It’s a good idea to look through all these categories when deciding on pet food to ensure you are choosing the best option for your pet.  Not every pet has the same nutritional requirements, and these requirements can change several times over the course of your pet’s lives.  Therefore, it is important to re-assess your pet’s diet over time, especially if you are noticing changes (such as weight loss/gain, changes in the skin, especially ears and feet, change in appetite etc).


 Ingredient List: 

Ingredients are the means to provide nutrients, while nutrients are food components that are used by the body.  For example, lamb is an ingredient that provides nutrients such as protein, fatty acids and vitamins.

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.  The high water content in chicken, beef and lamb makes these ingredients weigh more than dry ingredients such as grains, meat/poultry meals, minerals and vitamins, so they are often listed first.


Guaranteed Analysis:

This indicates the minimum or maximum levels of nutrients such as protein, fat, fibre and moisture in the product guide to consumers.

It is not an indication of the actual nutrient content of the food.

The minimum guarantee gives the lowest amount of the nutrient in the food, not the actual amount.  For example, the minimum fat guarantee may be 8% but the product can legally contain 15% fat or more.  Likewise, a product with a maximum guarantee of 5% fibre may only contain 1%.

Obtaining the actual nutrient content from the manufacturer is a better way to evaluate products.

 The Nutritional Adequacy Statement or AAFCO Statement: 

AAFCO is an organization that sets the nutritional standards for pet foods sold in the U.S, which is also widely recognized in Canada. This statement indicates whether the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for a specific life stage of your pet (growth, adult, pregnant/nursing), or if the product is nutritionally adequate for all life stages.

Beware if the package states the food supports all life stages, the product likely contains excessive levels of some nutrients necessary for the most demanding life stage, which is growth.  For example, it might contain higher levels of protein and calcium for puppies and kittens, but those levels are inappropriate for an adult or senior pet.

 The Manufacturer’s Name and Toll-free Phone Number: 

Consumers are encouraged to call the 800 number for product information not on the label such as the actual nutrient content of the food and its caloric content.


Determining Quality

 There is no way to determine the true quality of a pet food by reading the ingredient list or the guaranteed analysis. 

In fact, two products that may appear to have the same guaranteed analysis might have actual nutrient levels that vary significantly.

Individual ingredients do NOT determine the quality of a pet food.  It’s nutritional value of each ingredient blended together that delivers a product specific for a pet’s age or condition. 

The guaranteed analysis is not a guarantee of nutritional quality-nor is the ingredient list or the presence of certain ingredients.


AAFCO Standards

 AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials.  The nutritional adequacy of pet foods is generally determined by one of two methods based on nutritional levels and procedures defined by AAFCO.

 Formulation Method

This method is less expensive and results are determined more quickly as actual feeding or digestibility trials are not required.

There is no guarantee of pet acceptance or how the nutrient can be used by the body when utilizing this method.

In this case the label will indicate: “Brand X Cat Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat food nutrient profiles for maintenance.”

 Feeding Trial Method

This method is also known as the “Gold Standard” for determining nutritional adequacy.  The manufacturer must perform an AAFCO protocol feeding trial using the food being tested as the sole source of nutrition.

Feeding trials are the best way to document how a pet will perform when fed a specific diet.

In this case the label will indicate: “Animal feeding tests using AAFO procedures substantiate that Brand Y Adult Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs.”


Alternative Foods

There is an abundance of unsubstantiated information regarding alternative foods for pets available to the public via the Internet and other sources.  However, pet owners should be aware of the facts if they are considering an alternative food for their pet.

 BARF Formula (Bones and Raw Food)

The barf formula consists of a combination of raw meat, eggs, meaty bones and vegetables

 There is no scientific data to support beliefs commonly held by BARF supporters

 Some published BARF recipes contain excessive levels of key nutritional factors such as protein, calcium and phosphorus for an adult dog or cat.

 Food poisoning and bacterial contamination are obvious safety hazards for not only pets eating raw foods but the humans handling raw foods as well.

 Pets eating BARF or other raw food formulas are at an increased risk for intestinal obstruction, fractured teeth and gastrointestinal perforation.

 Home-cooked pet meals

In one study, 90% of homemade pet foods were found to be nutritionally unbalanced and incomplete for pets

 Pet owners and pets may be exposed to dangerous bacteria such as salmonella and listeria harboured by raw or insufficiently cooked meat

 Pet owners may assume dogs and cats require the same nutrition as humans and provide improper levels of multiple nutrients

 Homemade meals can contain an inverse calcium and phosphorus ratio dangerous to pets.


A Word About Preservatives

 Preservatives are ingredients used in pet food to prevent spoilage and rancidity.  Here are the facts about preservatives commonly found in commercially manufactured pet foods:

BHA and BHT are examples of synthetic antioxidant preservatives approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency when used at recommended levels.

Many human foods, such as bread, cheese, margarine, potato chips, meat and frozen and dried fruits, contain BHA and BHT.

Natural preservatives include tocopherols (vitamin E), spice extracts and citric acid.


The Corn Myth

 Myth: Corn is just a filler.

Fact: Corn is a superb source of nutrients.

  • Essential fatty acids for healthy skin and coat
  • Beta-carotene, vitamin E, lutein- nature’s antioxidants
  •  Highly digestible carbohydrates for energy
  • Quality proteins for muscle and tissue growth

 Myth: Corn causes food allergies in pets.

Fact: Studies show that corn causes no more food allergies than any other grain.

 Myth:  Corn is difficult to digest.

Fact:  Most grains, including corn, are poorly digested before they are cooked.  Once cooked, however, they become highly digestible.


By-products As Ingredients

 Myth: Pet foods containing ingredients listed as “by-products” are inferior.

Fact: By-products are common ingredients in both human and pet food.

  • A by-product is simply “something produced in the making of something else.”
  • When processing soybeans, for example, the by-product vitamin E is produced.
  •  Mixed tocopherols (such as vitamin E), used, as a natural preservatives in pet foods, are by-products of the soybean industry.
  •  Vegetable oils (such as flax seed oil, rice bran oil, corn oil and soy oil) are by-products extracted from seeds that are processed for consumption purposes.
  •  Chicken fat is a by-product of the chicken industry.
  • Pork, chicken and beef liver are internal organs of animals used for human consumption.
  • Beet pulp is dried residue from sugar beets.
  • Tomato pomace comes from tomato skins, pulp and seeds.


The Truth About Natural vs Organic Labelling


Myth: Natural means organic

Fact: Natural and organic are not interchangeable

Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free, and natural, can still appear on food labels.  However, do not confuse these terms with “organic.”  Only food labelled “organic products” has been certified as organic in accordance with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada regulations.

Term Legally Defined Definition
Organic Yes According to AAFC, the term “organic” may only be applied to pet food labels that meet regulations
Natural Yes According to AAFC, the term “natural” requires a pet food to consist of only natural ingredients without chemical alterations
Holistic No There is no legal definition of this term under laws devoted to pet foods.  Any manufacturer can make claims of “holistic” in literature and brochures regardless of ingredients chosen.
Human Grade No Claims that a product contains or is made from ingredients that are “human grade,” “human quality,” “people foods,” or “ingredients you would eat,” are false and misleading.


Grocery Store vs. Pet Store vs. Veterinary Exclusive Pet Food Brands

 Grocery store and pet store employees may have limited information and rely only on the food labels and manufacturer’s claims when offering nutrition advice.  Your veterinarian and veterinary health care team have the training, resources and knowledge of your pet’s health history to make the right nutritional recommendation for your pet’s age and life stage.


Some questions to consider when choosing a pet food:

 Is the food tailored to address specific dietary requirements and contain the right balance of nutrients to meet the needs of pets based of life stage, activity level or health condition?

Many generic brands sold in grocery and pet stores offer “All Lifestages” products that do not tailor key nutrients like protein, calcium or sodium to health requirements of different ages from puppy/kitten to mature adult.

 Are the ingredients screened to avoid excess?

Excess amounts of nutrients such as phosphorus, sodium, calcium or magnesium can be dangerous to a pet’s health.

 Is the manufacturer’s product development backed by research and does it have high levels of clinical testing demonstrating the efficacy and safety of the ingredients used in its products?

Pet foods carried exclusively by a veterinary clinic and recommended by any veterinary health care team member are carefully researched to ensure the product is of the highest quality and will best suit the needs of pets based on age, lifestyle or disease condition.

 So as you can see, there are a lot of components to analyse when choosing a pet food.  If you are feeling overwhelmed or have further questions, your veterinarian and their staff can be an excellent source of information.

One Comment

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